Lorenz on Leadership – Jessica’s legacy

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
There are certain times in our lives where a single moment or significant event causes us to pause -- and reflect. These moments can catch us after both happy times and sad -- after accomplishments of our own or those of others.

Sometimes they catch us off guard, by surprise. More often, though, these moments sit out in front of us and we either run into their embrace or are drawn toward them despite struggles to avoid them.

This holiday season I found myself at one of those moments. I was hosting a tour through the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The CFI is an amazing facility that helps rehabilitate military members who have suffered significant injury.

I love walking through the CFI. It is a bright, airy building filled with hope. On the top floor of the circular building there is a hallway with windows lined with pictures of those injured Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines whose lives were touched by the CFI team. It was there, looking at the large photos, that a particular pose caught my eye.

The photo took me back to last June, at a memorial service for one of our Airmen who, at 24 years of age, left our ranks far too soon. Senior Airman Jessica Tarver stared from the photo, a smile beaming from ear to ear.

Her story is one of perseverance and strength. A rare infection that she contracted during her second tour in Iraq tragically led to two years of challenges that, along the way, took both of her legs and, eventually, her life.

Jessica's memorial ceremony at the CFI had seating for 75, but twice as many stood around the perimeter to attend. Such a crowd is one of the simplest and strongest compliments anyone can receive. She was an inspirational person and I, along with so many others, am better for having known her.

During the ceremony many people stood to talk and reflect on their special relationship with Jessica. Her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Raymond James, had flown to San Antonio from Hurlburt Field, Fla. Jessica's battle began right after he took command of the 1st Special Operations Helicopter Maintenance Squadron. In fact, he'd only been on the job for two weeks when Jessica first went into the hospital.

His words resonated -- someone who had been forced to deal with a challenging situation from the very first days of command. Through Jessica, Colonel James grew into the seasoned, well-respected leader that he is today. All of the members of the 1st and the Air Force at large benefited from Jessica's courage, inner strength and perseverance.

One of her doctors stood to reflect on her memories of Jessica. While most double-amputees work hard to walk in athletic shoes, Jessica told the doctors and physical therapists that she wanted to walk in 6-inch heels. A tear fell from the doctor's eye while remembering the moment when Jessica strutted down the hall on four-inch stiletto heels with her prostheses. She had been an inspiration.

The others who flowed past the podium to tell their story and reflect on their relationship with Jessica shared a similar theme. Although their interaction varied, in each case they described a woman who challenged them to be better than before. She made a difference in their lives and they were there to say, "Thank you." Through her example, Jessica left them wiser, stronger and more able to handle future challenges. She was their Wingman.

The caregivers from the CFI stood around the ceremony, embracing the sadness. These are selfless heroes, who meet the unknown each and every day with a steadfast confidence and compassion. Their approach instills hope and enables otherwise impossible opportunities for their patients. They too make a difference in people's lives.

I could still feel the warmth of that embrace standing in the circular hallway last month, gazing at the portrait of Jessica. She taught everyone so much, challenged all to grow and strengthened our Air Force family. It is now our duty to pay this forward and push everyone to be better Airmen, teammates and Wingmen.

Such a message must never die. Standing in that hallway, I found myself feeling so thankful for having known Jessica Tarver and the way her smile could brighten any room. I also felt thankful for the members of the CFI team and all the good that they do.

Lastly, I was then and am forever thankful for each of you, the service you provide our nation and the difference you make each and every day. May we never forget the positive example and spirit of those Jessicas in our lives.